Pairing: Arthur/Gwen, Gwen/Lancelot
Word Count: 1,478
Summary: He was once quite good at making her laugh. Now she is mostly smiles: soft and lovely, quietly regal. Lips but no teeth. She has made herself beloved by the kingdom over the years and he is glad of that.
Author's Note: For vega_ofthe_lyre's prompt 'B is for: Battlements, Arthur/Gwen/Lancelot.' It's so weird to write Merlin fic with no Morgana in it! I feel very out of my element.
They say time may give you more then your poor bones could ever take
I think I could never love another girl
-- Iron & Wine, 'Belated Promise Ring'
Kings cannot be risked for the sake of queens.
As such, Arthur stands waiting on the battlements, arms crossed, expression stoic. The sky is blue but full of clouds, and the wind whips and shrieks. Were she here, it would make a mess of her hair, her skirts. Perhaps they would laugh about it together; he was once quite good at making her laugh. Now she is mostly smiles: soft and lovely, quietly regal. Lips but no teeth. She has made herself beloved by the kingdom over the years and he is glad of that.
He stands alone, and carefully does not remember standing here with Morgana, with his father. But the time slips by, the sky turns a darker blue, and as he paces back and forth he thinks in the back of his skull that they must have stood in these places, both of them, and now they are monsters and bones and he is alone and Gwen -- Queen Guinevere -- is supposed to be standing here beside him. A new family for a new age. It seems fitting to him, but prophecy (prophecy being a thing they heed again) has decreed that she will bear him no children. He dreams often of stepping up to the looking glass only to find his father's face staring back at him. History repeating, and all of that. This glorious new age exhausts him, makes him feel for his father as he could not in those last days Uther lived. Magic is not evil, magic is not evil, he knows this, but at the root of him he does not trust it. Most days he secretly believes that Merlin is the exception to the rule. That the world would be a great deal better off if that flame, unfair and wild as it is, were snuffed out. When he is too tired to be just, he deems that his ideal world. All men standing equal, steel and cunning their only weapons. It makes him angry, thinking it. It's an idea that threatens to burn up in him, and he knows he cannot speak it aloud. Certainly not to Merlin, who he tells most things. Not Gwen either, he thinks. Gwen, whose face still softens a little at the mention of Morgana's name; Gwen, who truly is as good as he strives, always, to be. He is not his father, he is not his father, but he is his father's son and his father is still there, a constant shadow in his brain.
And he, he is not even thirty yet. His birthday is three weeks after Morgana's. She'd used to give him a great deal of hell over that. She's grown a bit more ambitious about giving him hell since. He stares down at the stones beneath his feet, imagining her sly dancelike steps there.
When dark comes Merlin steps out beside him.
'He'll bring her home.'
'He'd never let anything happen to her.'
'I know, Merlin.'
Merlin takes his silence for annoyance and leaves. Arthur wishes he hadn't, but he's not about to call the great idiot back. In older days, he wouldn't have been daft enough to go in the first place. But Arthur has been a little short with him lately, and prone to solitude and long silences.
You will be a great king, some old remembered lovely voice promises, and he cannot tell whether it's Morgana's or Gwen's.
The stars are coming out when he spots a horse in the distance. Lancelot has not failed; there are two figures. Gwen sits in front of him, and though there is no other way to carry a lady on a horse, all he can see in their closeness is an embrace.
When they reach the courtyard, Arthur does not go down to meet them. He might have once. Lancelot dismounts first and then holds a hand up to Gwen. Arthur cannot see his face; it's too dark and too far. He can fill in the blanks without much difficulty. Lancelot always gazes at Gwen the same way, try as he might to mask it. The man is not made for deception; there's too much truth in him. Gwen stumbles a little coming down. (She meant to, he thinks, and hates himself, and amends, She is tired, she is tired.) Lancelot catches her, rights her. They do not part right away. Perhaps they speak to one another in voices too quiet to carry.
They move apart. She looks up. Arthur knows she will recognize him even though he must be nothing to her up here but a black shape like a shadow, watchful and looming.
Arthur thanks Lancelot. Claps him on the shoulder like they're still young men and there is something stronger between them than loyalty sworn long ago. They were nearly friends once, for a brief while. Arthur is quite sure he had liked the man. The memory of it is fuzzy.
Anyway, Lancelot ruins the gesture by bowing his head. Humility and gratitude and all of that. In all of history, Arthur thinks, there has never been a more devoted knight.
'You're like a statue,' Gwen remarks once they are alone in their bedchamber. She pulls out of his arms to look him in the face. He knows what she means. In the eight nights she was gone, he wanted nothing more than to have her here with him, to keep her close, to convince her that really, they can probably see to all their duties from these quarters and needn't leave ever again and if that means the fiends can't get at her anymore, well, too bloody bad for them. But now that she is here all he can think of is Lancelot inclining his head, the portrait of honour; of the way the two of them did not part quite fast enough, and lingered long and surely whispered words he could not hear. And so he can barely bend his arms to wrap them around her waist. It's as if he's turned to metal, or (she tends to get these things right) stone.
'Cold?' he says, playing stupid.
She is quiet a moment; then she nods. It disappoints him. 'It is winter, you know. What on earth were you thinking, standing outside for hours?'
'It was sunny,' he protests. 'Fresh air is essential to good health.'
'You fool,' she chastises affectionately. 'It'll take a week to thaw you out properly.'
'We'd best get started, then,' he retorts, putting on a smile as he grabs her hand and tugs her gently toward the bed.
She does laugh at that. The sound dies quickly, though. Outside the wind shrieks. He sits down. She does too, leaving space between them. Their fingers untangle and separate.
'You were worried for me.'
'Of course,' he says shortly. 'You might have died.'
'I didn't,' she says.
He means to tease her -- really, she didn't? That's amazing, thanks for clearing that up -- but she is in earnest and he hasn't the energy or the heart.
She rests a hand on his cheek.
'I will always come back to you,' she says.
'I know,' he says. He does. That's not the part that worries him. What worries him is where she'll go first. Where she'll be coming from when she returns.
He thinks she must see this in his eyes. She looks suddenly weary. Guilt fills him. He may not be right, after all. There has never been anything real, anything solid to prove it. Sometimes she gazes out of windows; once or twice she has looked away quickly at banquets when Arthur's followed her eyes down the table. Nothing of substance. Maybe it's no more than remembering a first love. (It's only that she is his, she is his, and it is not fair. You child, Morgana would surely mock. You idiot, she would tell him, Gwen would never.)
'Guinevere,' he says in penance, teasing her with her name the way he used to.
She begins to smile. He thinks she may mean this one.
'Sire,' she answers.
They smile at one another in fond, sleepy silence. He waits for her to cross the small distance between them. She does, and kisses him, and there is nothing different in it. When she pulls away, it's only to blow the candle out.
Here he is again in the dark, a shadow to her. She breaks away to breathe and he murmurs that he loves her. If she knows, he thinks (feeling a fool, not a king, though perhaps the two are not so different), if she knows well enough she'll have no reason to leave him. She does not say it back. Instead she sighs his name. He remembers kissing her the first time, in the morning when the room was full of light.